In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the powerful mechanisms that can be exploited to get people to say “yes”, and how to defend ourselves against them. First published 30 years ago, it’s still considered one of the best books on the subject. After reading it, Warren Buffet’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger, was so impressed that he gave Cialdini a share of Berkshire stock as thanks.
Cialdini starts by explaining that every animal, including us, has certain automatic patterns of behaviour that are triggered in response to a specific stimulus. If a new-born turkey chick makes a “cheep-cheep” sound, its mother will care for it. If not, she will ignore it and may even kill it. Other features of the chick – its smell or appearance – are largely irrelevant. These patterns of behaviour are so consistent it’s as if they’re recorded on tapes in the animals.
“When the situation calls for courtship, the courtship tape gets played; when the situation calls for mothering, the maternal-behaviour tape gets played. Click and the appropriate tape is activated; whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviours.”
Weapons of influence
We have our own powerful click whirr behaviours. Cialdini calls these “weapons of influence” because although they mostly serve us well, simplifying our decisions and providing shortcuts through life, they can also be exploited to get us to do things we might not want to do. Anyone who knows how to trigger them can use their power against us, like jujitsu, using minimal effort. They provide the ability to manipulate without the appearance of manipulation.
For example, when we ask someone to do a favour for us, we’re more likely to get a positive response if we provide a reason, regardless of what that reason is. If we see an expensive item, we instinctively consider it to be of higher quality, whether that’s actually true or not.
Another weapon is the contrast principle, which describes how we view two things presented one after another. Provided they are sufficiently different, we tend to see the second thing as more different than it actually is. A heavy object seems heavier if we have picked up a light object first. The contrast principle is closely related to anchoring bias, our tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information that we receive when making decisions.
Cialdini devotes the rest of the book to an in-depth look at six other weapons of influence: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.
The reciprocity principle describes our desire to repay the favours that others do for us. This sense of obligation is so strong it can overcome other factors, such as not liking the person we are indebted to, and can make us willing to give back more than we have received.
Thus, if we want someone to do something, we can increase the chance of them agreeing by doing a small favour for them first. They need not have requested this, and because we get to choose both the initial favour and the subsequent request, we can set up an unequal exchange if we are so inclined. Because there is strong social pressure to accept a gift, it is very hard for the other person to refuse the initial favour, even if they suspect they are being manipulated. This makes it very easy to put people in our debt.
The rejection-then-retreat technique is a specific example of this. Someone starts by asking us for far more than he wants then, if rejected, offers a concession, retreating to a position that reflects what he actually wants. By offering a concession, he engages both the contrast principle and the reciprocity principle, creating pressure on us to offer a concession in return. Moreover, we are likely to feel that our actions caused the concession, increasing our commitment to and satisfaction with the deal. Alternatively, should we accept his initial offer, he has gained more than he would have settled for.
We can resist the reciprocity principle by considering whether a favour done or a gift offered was genuine. If we decide it was not, we can remove the sense of obligation by mentally reclassifying it as an action designed to obtain compliance, then accept the gift or favour anyway. Since the reciprocity principle demands that an action be repaid in kind, we should have no qualms responding to an act of exploitation by exploiting it!
2. Commitment and Consistency
We have a strong desire to act in ways that are consistent with what we have previously said or done. Commitment is the click that produces the whirr of the consistency tape.
“If I can get you to make a commitment (that is, to take a stand, to go on record), I will have set the stage for your automatic and ill-considered consistency with that earlier commitment. Once a stand is taken, there is a natural tendency to behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent with the stand.”
Commitments can also change our self-image, which can in turn lead us to naturally comply with a range of other requests consistent with this new view of ourselves. Cialdini describes an experiment where people were asked to sign a petition that favoured “keeping California beautiful”. Almost everyone signed. Two weeks later the same people were asked to allow a large “Drive Carefully” sign to be placed on their lawns. Around 50% agreed, far more than the 17% who agreed to the same request when it was not preceded by the request to sign the petition. According to the researchers who conducted the experiment:
“What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or taking action. Once he has agreed to a request, his attitude may change, he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.”
Others decide what kind of a person we are by looking at what we do. We do the same when evaluating ourselves.
Commitments also have a tendency to grow legs, as we look for additional reasons to justify our decision to make them. Even if the original reason is removed, these other reasons may be enough to ensure our behaviour remains unchanged. For example, a car salesman may offer a very good price on a car, only to deftly remove it after the customer has agreed to the purchase. Perhaps an “error” was discovered in the calculations or he says he was overridden by his boss. In many cases the customer will go through with the purchase anyway, having constructed other reasons as to why it makes sense in the interim.
Commitments are more effective when they are active, made public, involve effort and are made in the absence of strong outside pressures. A large reward or a strong threat may extract immediate compliance but it inhibits us from accepting responsibility for our actions, the key to creating long-term commitment. Worth remembering if you are a parent.
To determine when a foolish consistency is leading us astray we need to look out for two warning signs. The first is the feeling we get in our stomach when we know we are being taken. The second is the flash of emotion we feel when we ask ourselves the question, “Knowing what I know now, would I still have done what I did?” (before rationalisation and self-justification kick in). If the answer is “no” we should immediately press stop on the consistency tape.
3. Social Proof
Social proof is our tendency to look at what other people are doing in order to decide how to react to a situation. We determine what is correct by looking at what other people think is correct.
We typically turn to social proof when we are uncertain or the situation is unclear. We are most swayed by those we perceive as being similar to ourselves.
Social proof can lead to a phenomenon known as “pluralistic ignorance”, however. Others may be thinking or acting the way they are not because they have access to superior insight or information, but because they have observed others thinking or acting that way too. This explains the “bystander effect”, where individuals do not help in an emergency situation when other people are present. Because we like to look unflustered in public, and because we are unfamiliar with how to interpret the reactions of people we don’t know, we are unlikely to give off or correctly read expressions of concern when in a group of strangers. Thus, in an emergency situation bystanders may not help because they are uncertain if an emergency exists and they are unsure whether they are responsible for taking action.
To resist the effects of social proof we should look out for situations where social evidence has been purposely falsified. In addition, we should always compare the social evidence with the supporting facts, our prior experiences and our own judgements.
Simply put, we are more inclined to do things for people we like. Liking can be triggered by several things:
Physical attractiveness. This can dominate the way someone is viewed by others. We automatically, subconsciously assign positive characteristics such as talent, kindness, honesty and intelligence to good-looking people. Both sexes respond in the same way.
Similarity. Whether in opinions, background, personality, interests, dress or lifestyle, we like those who are, or appear to be, most similar to ourselves.
Compliments. It is very hard to stop ourselves liking someone who likes us. Praise does not even have to be true to be effective.
“Actor McLean Stevenson once described how his wife tricked him into marriage: “She said she liked me.” Although designed for a laugh, the remark is as much instructive as humorous. The information that someone fancies us can be a bewitchingly effective device for producing return liking and willing compliance.”
Familiarity. Repeated exposure to something causes liking, often subconsciously, as long as the exposure is under pleasant conditions. Under unpleasant conditions, the opposite is true.
Co-operation. Working together to achieve a goal produces liking. This is powerful enough to reverse previous dislike.
Association with good things. An innocent association with bad or good things will influence how people feel about us, as the imperial messengers of old Persia could testify when they brought news of a battlefield defeat. This explains why people are often judged by the company they keep, why we describe the sports team we support using “we” when they’re winning and “they” when they’re losing, and why companies often try to associate their products with the current zeitgeist. It also explains why we sometimes inflate the successes of others we are associated with, such as our spouse or children.
To detect whether someone is using liking to manipulate us we need to step back and ask ourselves whether we like the person more than we really should, under the circumstances. If so, we need to mentally separate our views of the person from what they are asking us to do.
We are conditioned from an early age to accede to the requests of those in positions of authority, be they policemen, teachers, governments or a knowledgeable sommelier.
So strong is this conditioning that we will willingly go to extreme lengths to comply. Cialdini describes a chilling experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. It was designed to test the willingness of participants (the “Teachers”) to administer a series of escalating electric shocks to another person, on the instructions of a lab-coated researcher. The victim was actually an actor, and the shocks were not real, but the participants did not know this. About two thirds of them continued to the end of the experiment (administering a “shock” of 450 volts), despite the agonised screams of the victim and his pleas for them to stop.
“I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within twenty minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: “Oh God, let’s stop it.” And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter and obeyed to the end.”
Why did Milgram believe obedience to authority was the explanation for this frightening result?
“In a later study he had the researcher and victim switch scripts so that the researcher told the Teacher to stop delivering the shocks to the victim, while the victim insisted bravely that the Teacher continue. The result couldn’t have been clearer; 100 percent of the subjects refused to give one additional shock when it was merely the fellow subject who demanded it. The identical finding appeared in another version of the experiment in which the researcher and fellow subject switched roles so that it was the researcher who was strapped into the chair and the fellow subject who ordered the Teacher to continue – over the protests of the researcher. Again, not one subject touched another shock lever.”
Obedience to authority does not even require that the person actually be a genuine authority figure. It can be triggered merely by the symbols and trappings of authority, such as a title or clothing, even when we know these are not real.
Thus when an authority figure attempts to influence us, the first thing to do is ask ourselves if they actually have any authority or expertise. Even if they do, we should then ask ourselves if they have anything to gain. Someone seeking to influence us may even appear to act against their own interest on a small issue, to establish their honesty, so that we are more likely to trust them on a larger one. For example, a waiter may advise against choosing a dish that is supposedly not good that evening, recommending an alternative that is a little cheaper, in order that we are more likely to trust his recommendation of an expensive bottle of wine.
We value things that are scarce, unavailable, or soon to become unavailable more highly than those things that are not. We value things that have recently become unavailable highest of all. Our desire can be increased further if there is competition for the object.
Thus, artificially restricting the availability or apparent availability of an object is a sure-fire way of persuading us to want it more. Signs saying “only 2 left in stock” and limited-time sales are two examples of how companies leverage this to persuade us to buy more.
The scarcity principle applies to information as well as things:
“Almost invariably, our response to the banning of information is a greater desire to receive that information and a more favourable attitude toward it than before the ban…
[However] we can see that information may not have to be censored for us to value it more; it need only be scarce. According to the scarcity principle, then, we will find a piece of information more persuasive if we think we can’t get it elsewhere.”
Something to bear in mind when reading an “exclusive” newspaper scoop.
We rationalise our heighted desire for a scarce object by assigning positive qualities to the thing. We instinctively assume that if we want something it must be because of its merits. Should we acquire the object, however, we do not enjoy it more because it was hard to get.
Thus, if we seek something simply for the sake of owning it, scarcity-induced desire will give us a reasonable indication of how much we value it. However, if we seek something in order to able to use that thing, we should be careful that its scarcity does not cause us to overvalue it. The key to resisting scarcity pressures, then, rests on us recognising our heightened state of arousal and asking ourselves why we want the thing.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion is a terrific guide to persuading others and resisting being persuaded by them.